Which Languages to Translate: A Strategic Guide
In our increasingly interconnected world, the importance of language cannot be overstated. For organizations looking to foster growth, expand their reach, and communicate with diverse audiences, effective translation is a key driver of success.
However, the question arises: Which languages should you prioritize for translation? In this article, we explore the factors to consider when deciding which languages to translate into. From the statistical landscape of global languages to strategic insights and considerations, we’ll help you make informed decisions to connect with your target audience.
Understanding the Global Linguistic Landscape
To evaluate which languages to prioritize for translation, it’s crucial to grasp the global linguistic landscape. Let’s start by examining some key statistics on the world’s most widely spoken languages:
1. English: A Global Language
Per the statistics portal Statista, English is spoken natively or as a secondary language by a staggering 1.5 billion people worldwide. The fastest-spreading language in human history, English is the most widely used tongue for international communication and the global language of business.
2. Mandarin Chinese: A Growing Giant
With over 1.1 billion speakers, Mandarin Chinese comes in as the second most spoken language globally. As China’s influence continues to grow, so does the importance of the Chinese language.
3. Hindi: A Vast Audience
Hindi boasts 609.5 million speakers, primarily in India, another fast-growing global economy.
4. Spanish: A Bridge to the Americas
Spanish, with 559 million speakers, is a key language for reaching audiences in Spain and across Latin America and the United States. It has been designated an official language of 20 countries and Puerto Rico, and its use is on the rise worldwide.
5. French: A Global Lingua Franca
French is spoken by 309 million and serves as a lingua franca in many countries. Its reach extends well beyond the official French-speaking regions, making it a language of opportunity in developing regions around the world.
Linguistic Diversity in the U.S.
According to the latest U.S. Census, nearly 68 million people speak a language other than English at home, a number that has nearly tripled over the past three decades. The Hispanic population is the largest minority group in the U.S., so it makes sense that Spanish is the most common non-English language in the country, spoken by nearly 42 million people. The U.S. boasts the second largest population of Spanish speakers in the world, following Mexico. After English and Spanish, the most commonly spoken languages in U.S. homes are Chinese (3.49 million), Tagalog (1.76 million), Vietnamese (1.57 million), and Arabic (1.26 million).
Where to Find Data on Linguistic Diversity
The U.S. Census includes three questions about language and English proficiency. The survey asks whether a person speaks a language other than English at home, what language he/she speaks, and how well he/she speaks English. While Census data can be difficult to wade through, details on the language-related questions can be found here, along with drop-down menus that allow you to easily search the answers by state and county.
While the Census surveys everyone in the country each decade, the American Community Survey (ACS) is sent to a sample of addresses on a yearly basis to gather additional information about the social and economic needs of communities. Though they predate the most recent Census, the 2015 ACS reports provide easy-to-use statistics on English usage and language spoken at home in the U.S., broken down by state, county, and select metropolitan, micropolitan, and other statistical areas.
Crafting Your Translation Strategy
It’s important to note that your translation strategy shouldn’t solely rely on statistics. To determine which languages to prioritize for translation, here are some factors to take into consideration:
1. Analyze Your Existing Traffic
Leverage tools like Google Analytics to identify where your website visitors are coming from. Observe their behavior and conversion rates. Are visitors from specific regions converting as expected? This data can highlight untapped markets where translation might be beneficial.
2. Consider Your Audience and Growth Plans
Evaluate your current audience as well as projections for growth. Align your language strategy with your goals and target demographics. Analyze your competitors to identify which languages they support.
3. Understand Language Variants
Recognize that even within a single language, variants exist. For instance, different forms of Spanish are spoken in Spain and Latin America (more on this later). Adapting your content to these regional nuances can greatly enhance authenticity.
4. Evaluate the Breadth and Reach of Languages
Consider the global and local significance of languages. Some, like Chinese, have a massive global reach due to their large speaker populations. Certain languages or variants, like Cape Verdean Portuguese, may be far more local but nonetheless essential for targeting specific communities.
5. Localization Matters
Localization is more than just translation; it’s about adapting your content to the culture and preferences of your target audience. Consider how language impacts website design, imagery, and messaging. Pay attention to cultural nuances and taboos to ensure your message resonates effectively.
Deep Dive into Key Languages
Let’s delve deeper into a few of the prominent languages mentioned above:
With 1.1 billion speakers, Chinese is a global powerhouse. While spoken Chinese has many variants, including Mandarin and Cantonese, the standard written language has two forms: Simplified and Traditional. Starting in the 1950s, the Chinese Communist Party sought to reduce illiteracy by promoting a simplified version of the country’s traditional writing system. As a result, Chinese throughout the world is now written using two distinct systems: Traditional Chinese, which retains characters in their original forms, and Simplified Chinese, which uses simplified or adapted versions of the original Chinese characters. Today, Simplified Chinese is the standard in mainland China and Singapore, while people in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau continue to use Traditional.
The U.S. is the top destination for Chinese immigrants worldwide, and the Chinese represent the third largest origin group among U.S. immigrants, following Mexico and India. Slightly more than half of those Chinese immigrants live in either California (32%) or New York (19%). Both cities include substantial communities established before the advent of Simplified Chinese, and many residents still use Traditional characters. However, more recent influxes of Chinese immigrants have diversified the Chinese populations across the country. The only way to make sure that your message is understood by all U.S. Chinese speakers is to translate into both Traditional and Simplified Chinese.
Spanish is spoken by over half a billion people globally, including 42 million in the U.S. These numbers are only expected to grow. It is estimated that by 2050, 10% of the world population will speak Spanish, with much of this growth driven by the U.S.
Any organization translating into Spanish should be aware of the distinct variants. Content for Spain should be translated into Peninsular (or European) Spanish. However, this variant is different from what is spoken in the U.S. and throughout Latin America. The universal form of Latin American Spanish (LATAM) uses neutral versions of words that are not specific to any particular country. U.S. Spanish is similar to neutral LATAM, but uses U.S. measurements and punctuation conventions, such as commas rather than decimal points to separate groups of thousands.
One of the fastest growing languages in the world, French is spoken by more than 275 million people worldwide, including 1.6 million in the U.S. The number of Francophones in Africa is rising rapidly. In fact, the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie predicts that there will be more than 700 million French speakers by the year 2060.
A language that spans five continents, French has also developed distinct variants. While French speakers in Canada can understand people in France, the differences are significant, even more so than the variations between British and American English.
Maximize Your Impact
In today’s globalized world, language is a bridge to diverse audiences. To maximize your impact and connect authentically, a well-thought-out language strategy is essential. Remember that language is not just about words; it’s about culture, design, and engagement. Eriksen offers translation services in over 100 languages, making any language strategy scalable. Reach out to our team to discuss your translation needs and explore new opportunities.